Sunday 14 July 2024

Simplicity is harder than complexity

Le Taureau, is a series of lithographs by Pablo Picasso

Taking complex subjects and simplifying them into abstract forms is a major aspect of Picasso’s art. This concept is a skill. People who are successful in life have this in common: they are able to break down the complexity and simplify things for themselves and for others. Simplicity is harder than complexity. We often think it’s the other way around.

“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” – Blaise Pascal

Saturday 13 July 2024

Brand purpose is broken

Should brands have a purpose? The answer is yes. Brands are important assets in the modern world, and they should aim to do good. But where it gets tricky is whether they should actively market this purpose. I am not so sure.

When did brands have to become religions? Are brand managers ethic philosophers, and are the users of a brand a congregation?

A simpler way to think about this could be: founders have purpose; brands need to stick to positioning. Purpose is not a differentiating factor. The way it is being talked about, purpose is seen as a higher order, lofty ideal of social good, which means that all brands will tend to address the same gamut of issues plaguing society. While there are enough issues plaguing society, for brand purpose to matter, there will have to be a prioritization of which issue to tackle, starting from the top down – the most difficult problem first. These days, the consensus seems to be sustainability and inequality, and various flavors of these two. When we see it this way, it is not a good idea for many brands to be tackling the same few issues. Remember, brands are vehicles of differentiation. Purpose marketing is reducing that difference and leading us towards commoditization. It's not surprising that we see so many purpose-driven campaigns that all look the same.

Purpose is at best one aspect of positioning, not equal to or above it. It is something that gives a brand momentum. Really successful brands are nothing more than brands that have a sense of momentum and stay ahead of trends. Not all brands need to be challenger brands.

A better way to think about purpose as a facet of positioning is to consider meeting a consumer need. Take sustainability as an example. Consumers are frustrated by their inability to affect issues like sustainability individually. Therefore, at scale, brands can offer consumers a way to feel more capable of contributing to the sustainability cause. This articulation makes sense as it offers a clear role for brand purpose, which is rooted in an actual job to be done for consumers—a genuine tension, not just a stated concern over the environment used for marketing.

Get brand purpose in its right place within brand strategy. Don’t elevate it above strategy.

Friday 12 July 2024

TOFU mentality - Take Ownership and Follow Up

In both work and life, achieving your goals requires taking ownership. Of your life and of your circumstances. Blame and victimhood offer no value; instead, we must rise above them, take ownership, and actively work toward what we want. However, taking ownership alone is not enough.

The second part of the TOFU mentality—following up—is equally crucial. We must follow up with ourselves and others to make progress on our agenda. As a professional I often see employees and managers, taking responsibility but succumbing to "superhero syndrome." They try to handle everything by themselves in the false hope that they can do it all. They don’t work collaboratively or seek help. This undermines the ownership they take, because these behaviours limits what they can achieve.  This is lack of ‘follow up’ - both with themselves and with others.

Those who persistently take ownership and follow up, with courage, kindness and consistency, are the ones who rise above and become true leaders. 

Thursday 11 July 2024

Motivation checklist to overcome work anxiety

If you are anxious at work, overthinking, and unable to make a decision, here are some ideas to help you get over the nervousness, focus, and move forward:

  1. Start: Take one small step on anything, even if it is not critical.
  2. Don’t expect conditions to be perfect: Start before you are ready.
  3. Remember, work usually gets done: It's very unlikely that you will be cross-examined right now. Just start and then try to delegate.
  4. Nobody is thinking about you: In fact, everyone is thinking about themselves.
  5. Stop building “if-then” scenarios in your mind: Don’t make maneuvers or think about doing them. Take action. If you must build 'if-then' scenarios, write them out. When you see them, you'll realize how absurd they are.
  6. Remind yourself that you can handle it: When fear takes over, reassure yourself that you can handle it. You don’t need to know how; just be confident that you will manage.
  7. Think long-term about consequences: If you know what action to take but are worried about the consequences, consider the long-term perspective. Soon, this issue will no longer matter.
  8. Cultivate luck and take risks: Take that risk. What's the worst that can happen?
In summary, get out of your mind and start taking action.

Wednesday 10 July 2024

Increase the opportunities you have to succeed

Success is not a trick. It is a technique. It’s a technique because success comes from following a system that predisposes one to take actions set up to help them succeed. Instead of asking how one can succeed, one should be putting effort into learning what increases energy and focus. When deployed systematically, this will increase the exposure to opportunities for success.

Tuesday 9 July 2024

Philosophy of the future

"Fiction that is fast becoming real is philosophy.” – Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval mentions (something like) this during his conversation on the Tim Ferriss podcast when discussing the power of words. I cannot seem to find the exact quote in the transcript. They discussed how some books, like Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, are more philosophy cleverly disguised as science fiction. The same can be said of shows like Black Mirror, which uniquely holds up a mirror to society today by visualising an imaginary world, which is fast becoming reality, but feels just a bit shocking today.

Scenario planning in the domain of futures thinking aims to achieve a similar effect. By systematically observing the present and past, and making calculated imaginations of the future, futures thinking allows individuals, organizations, and societies to prepare for different alternatives and take action to steer toward a preferred future. 

This kind of fiction is, therefore, a philosophy of the future.

Monday 8 July 2024

Inspiration to live an unrushed life

Follow your compass, not your clock
Andrea Jung

Incentives in life are biased to the fast and the agile. It is a FALSE incentive. It might be good in the short term and in some seasons one does need to prioritize speed. But in the long term and for things that really matter in life, an unrushed approach is the true incentive and is in fact a luxury. The best things in life take their sweet time. 

Sunday 7 July 2024

Rethinking the need for heroes

In German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s classic play Life of Galileo, Andrea, a former pupil of Galileo, visits him after he recants his seminal findings under pressure from the Catholic Church. Galileo gives Andrea his notebooks, asking him to spread the knowledge they contain. Andrea celebrates this, saying, “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” 

Galileo corrects him: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

This concept pushes us to think outside the mainstream. People with a victim mindset are often looking for a hero to save the day and an anti-hero to blame. A better approach is to question why we need heroes, persecutors, or hapless victims in the first place. Instead, we should have the courage to be regular adults dealing with issues in a mature way.

The Drama Triangle is a concept where people engage in certain kinds of drama in their interpersonal interactions. These dramas are typically negative behaviors that do not lead to positive outcomes. The drama perpetuates negativity and does not lead to resolution.

In Victim mode, one feels victimized and unable to enjoy life or effectively deal with life's issues. Victims seek out persecutors or rescuers.

In Rescuer mode, one constantly looks to rescue someone, which is an easy escape from focusing on their own problems. It is avoidance disguised as concern for the victim, keeping the victim dependent on the rescuer and vice versa.

In Persecutor mode, one is blaming, controlling, or angry. Instead of being assertive, the drama forces the person to be aggressive.

The need for heroes is a siren call for engaging in drama. Whenever we see a situation where there is an acknowledged need for heroes to save the day, it is a clear indication of underlying problems that need to be addressed directly. In relationships and organizations, this dynamic suggests a lack of healthy, collaborative problem-solving and an over-reliance on individuals to resolve systemic issues. 

It is also linked to the superhero syndrome, the expectation that one can do everything by themselves without relying on others. This goes against eons of human development, which is based on communal and collaborative living.

Saturday 6 July 2024

Functional value of emotions

We all need to understand the functional value of our emotions. Emotions provide useful information; they are the body and mind jointly telling our consciousness how they perceive certain stimuli and contexts.

People's understanding of emotions and how to manage them has evolved over time, particularly in the modern world. Today, many have learned to underplay their emotions. We tend to feel annoyed instead of angry. We might settle for being mildly amused instead of truly inspired. We often smile at a joke we find funny rather than laughing out loud, to avoid seeming rowdy. We downplay our shock at poor behavior by simply writing it off as mildly surprising. These behaviors stem from social constructs, expectations, and upbringing.

It's important to have a healthy understanding and relationship with our emotions. Underplaying them can lead to repression, which is harmful to both body and mind. Conversely, those who cannot control their reactions to emotions are also at a disadvantage, often finding themselves in a victim mindset.

Anger is an important emotion when you want something to change. I have heard of an interesting cure for writer's block: identify and start writing about what makes you angry, and it will no longer be a blocker. Similarly, surprise can open our minds to new possibilities and break us out of our routines, helping to meet our stimulation needs. Experiencing rejection and despondency builds resilience. Disgust helps protect us from harmful substances and behaviors. Failing to express and feel these emotions, and being politically correct in a ‘cancel culture’ environment, can make us bitter, easily offended, and ultimately fragile.

Sadness arises when we cannot change something that has happened in the past; anger is present; fear pertains to future possibilities and the potential for things to go wrong. Understanding the roles of these emotions and recognizing when we feel them is useful.

The beauty of emotions is that they can be experienced in the past, present, and future. Joy can come from recalling a fond memory, being fully alive and focused in the present moment, or anticipating and imagining a preferred future.

Friday 5 July 2024

Parable about working in silos vs. collaboration

There is a rock blocking a road.

One person comes up to it, sees it, and goes around it. Another person arrives, notices the rock, puts a post-it note on it saying "there is a rock blocking the road," and then takes the path around the rock. A third person comes, shouts back, "Hey, there is a rock on the road, be careful," and also goes around it.

All these actions demonstrate siloed thinking. Each person takes their own way, and even though they think about helping others, they do not address the root cause of the problem.

Then, a fourth person arrives. He stops and starts working on moving the rock out of the way. Others join him, and together they eventually move the rock off the road. After removing the obstacle, they all proceed on the cleared path. This is an example of collaboration.

Questions to consider:

  • What if the goal was to reach the destination as quickly as possible? What roles should people take in this scenario?
  • If all these individuals were on one team, is it acceptable for different team members to take different approaches to explore various outcomes?
  • How do skill sets and abilities factor into this scenario?
  • Finally, what can organizations do to clarify which approach they want their teams to take and in what situations?

Thursday 4 July 2024

Art serves as a valuable metaphor for life when applied wisely


Epic Poem of Malaya, 1955, Chua Mia Tee

"The painter assumes the role of scriptwriter, director, and actor to freely shape the subject's image." — Chua Mia Tee

During a visit to the Singapore National Gallery, I came across the work of Chua Mia Tee, a renowned Singaporean painter. In a video montage there, he discusses the differences between painting and photography. He explains that photography captures the scene as it is, whereas painting emphasizes themes chosen by the artist, making it selective in nature. Not all elements present in a scene necessarily appear in the painting. In fact, a good painting often includes special elements to elevate the scene and tell a story.

This process of emphasis distinguishes painting from photography. However, I believe that even in photography, the selection of the scene and what to include in the frame involves a form of emphasis, similar to painting. Ultimately, both are art forms, and art serves as a valuable metaphor for life when applied wisely.

In life, we can choose when to be a photographer, staying true to the scene, and when to be a painter, highlighting the positive elements we want to emphasize. A good life involves doing both.

Wednesday 3 July 2024

Insecurity is worse than incompetence

Employee engagement is challenging. However, it doesn't have to be. Various organizational issues lead to low employee engagement. One particular symptom indicates that things are seriously off track and that significant problems lie ahead for the company. I call this symptom 'insecurity stifles initiative.'

Before I elaborate, let me clarify something. As companies grow and reach mid-size, certain typical symptoms emerge: additional layers of management hierarchy, different teams and silos, misaligned objectives between teams, different subcultures, transformation programs, bureaucracy, politics, financial problems, short-termism, and many more. These are common in most organizations of a certain scale and are not deeply rooted problems. There are tried and tested ways to address these issues, and a whole industry of consulting is built around dealing with them.

However, when 'insecurity stifles initiative' appears, it's a clear signal that some parts of the organization, or the whole organization, are circling the drain. What do I mean by this? In any organization with a certain threshold of staff, there is usually a bell curve distribution of people's attitudes. You will have a few highly motivated, high-agency people, and a few apathetic and disruptive individuals. Any properly functioning organization slowly and humanely weeds out the disruptive individuals and reorients the apathetic to situations where they can be engaged again. The problem lies with the majority who are neither apathetic nor highly motivated.

In an organization where 'insecurity stifles initiative,' it becomes increasingly evident that both the majority and the high-agency people are dissatisfied. For the majority, the culture does nothing to encourage initiative. So, people are doing their work, maybe grumbling about it, and are not very productive. For the highly motivated few, the culture actively blocks or creates hurdles for them, despite their predisposition to take initiative.

I have observed that the culture of 'insecurity stifles initiative' is not specific to any one part of an organization or any one level; it is generic and not localized, making it even harder to observe and recognize, let alone tackle. Everyone from the CEO down to the analyst can exhibit the symptoms of this culture.

There are some telltale signs that this kind of culture is taking hold or is already present:

  1. Selective groups share information, excluding some levels not because it makes sense, but because those excluding them feel the need to protect themselves and their power.
  2. The information held close is usually not on the critical path for the business but is what the select groups deem important to protect their power.
  3. Ideas receive feedback and suggestions that may add 5% improvements but will take almost double the effort to achieve, killing the motivation of those doing it.
  4. Measurement for measurement’s sake is the norm.
  5. There are many channels for providing upward feedback, and it is encouraged in corporate communications, but there are never enough intimate forums for it to be provided easily.

Examples of this behavior include:

  1. Leaders visiting a market from across the globe on pricey travel budgets but not making an effort to meet teams to bond and inspire, only meeting specific business objectives. This is usually justified by cost efficiencies, but what is hidden is the insecurity of not being able to connect as a leader.
  2. Leaders always fixing problems and not painting a picture of possibilities in informal ways. Everything is formal. Efficiency is prioritized over efficacy.

The key summary of all this emerging from an 'insecurity stifles initiative' culture is that employees don't know where they are heading in the organization, leading to negative outcomes.

Because this issue is generalized and can be present anywhere in the organization, the change must come from deep within a silo, with a cohort of cohesive and happy team members and a leader who rises above the milieu of insecurity. This is often uncharted waters, and not many mainstream frameworks or advice work. Each leader needs to find their own ways and create a tribe around them. And it is possible, but rare.

Tuesday 2 July 2024

BOOK NOTE - The Bear - Andrew Krivak


Ever so often, I come across a book that I am unable to put down. I purchased The Bear by Andrew Krivak on a Saturday morning after reading a recommendation and finished it by Monday evening. All 220 pages. You could say I devoured it.

Krivak is an American author of some repute, having won several prestigious awards. He has written only four books, but all have been critically successful. I suspect he will become one of those standout American literary authors who may not attract a large audience but will find critical acclaim. His work is part novel, part philosophy, offering unique observations about the human condition. Note: there is another Andrew Krivak who comes up in Google searches. This other Krivak was recently acquitted after being incarcerated for 24 years. He was proven innocent of crimes he was wrongly convicted for. They are not the same person.

The Bear is a unique piece of work. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the last of humanity consists of a father and his young daughter. They live in the wilderness, surviving through the ‘fruits’ of nature and the wisdom passed down to them. The father and daughter are survivors, making a successful but hard living because they have no other option. Their existence is rather melancholy as it is just them, their conversations, and their thoughts. Eventually, when the father passes on, the girl, still in her early teens, must learn how to survive the wilderness and the harsh seasons. She does so with the help of a pantheon of animals, including the titular bear, a panther, and an eagle.

Two interesting observations about the human condition emerge from this story. One, no matter how much we progress technologically as a society, every child must learn about the external and internal environments completely afresh. Therefore, the second point is that the more teachers, that are good in helping us navigate our learning in life, the better.

A must-read

Monday 1 July 2024

BOOK NOTE - How to fail at almost everything and still win big - Scott Adams

I have admired Scott Adams’s Dilbert comic strip for a long time. While the drawings are simple, the humor is punchy and, as an office worker, it connects with me immediately. In 2019, I came across Scott’s conversation with Tim Ferriss on his podcast, and I really enjoyed Scott’s clarity of thought and his message about how to be successful. I particularly connected with the idea of using affirmations to condition your mind for success. Since then, I have followed Scott’s work and his conversations with others.

Scott's book is a field manual for people who want systems for success. Written not in any one narrow domain (e.g., success as a cartoonist), it is a great primer for succeeding in life. It provides systems and ideas that can be adapted to various contexts. It aligns well with and reinforces my beliefs and learning about ways to succeed in life.

Here are some key messages:

  1. Choose systems instead of goals, as systems help create the infrastructure for success.
  2. Ensure you are maximizing energy; it's more important than time management. Match your mental state with the activity.
  3. Be open to failure. Accept rejection and learn from it.
  4. When you learn from failure, you gain knowledge that gives you an advantage.
  5. Generous people take care of their needs first, so they can give to others.
  6. The best systems are simple. Simplify your life.
  7. Imagination is the interface to your attitude. Pessimism is a failure of imagination.
  8. Don’t just be optimistic; be super optimistic—what do you have to lose?
  9. Choose things that you can practice easily to get better.
  10. Happiness is being able to control your schedule.

I have used affirmations in my life, and they work. They put you in a positive state of mind, which makes all the difference.